Monday, November 13, 2006

Firth makes for a 'super-creepy' Austenian hero in Northanger Abbey (REVIEW)


I had never watched the 1986 BBC adaptation of Austen's Northanger Abbey, so I decided to give it a go last night. I had pretty low expectations to be honest, based on the reactions of some posters on the IMDB message board, which were soon dispelled - at least for the first half hour - after which this adaptation lurched unpleasantly into oddly surreal territory. This was partly due to a horrendous Hammer House of Horror syntho-pop musical score, which constantly thrummed and crescendoed in annoying fashion. But it was also due to an excrutiatingly creepy acting performance from Peter Firth as the romantic lead Henry Tilney.

Now, normally I love Peter Firth, most especially, twenty years on, as Harry in Spooks, the BBC's superb spy series. But I couldn't get on with him at all in this production. For one, he was sporting a nasty, wispy, straw-coloured wig, and the camera kept zooming in on his strangely pale, fleshy lips as he over-enunciated his lines and rolled his rs in full hammy Shakespearean mode. Plus, his characterisation was plain dislikeable - lots of stroking, staring and snidey comments. Of all Jane Austen's romantic heros, Henry Tilney is probably the most in touch with his feminine side, and is also witty and clever to boot. Firth instead played him as acerbic, patronising and super-camp.

The remainder of the Tilney family fared poorly in this production. Henry's sister Eleanor, as played here by Ingrid Lacey, was rendered wooden and stilted and General Tilney (Robert Hardy) was an overblown buffoon, more likely to prompt stifled giggles than inklings of fear from an impressionable young girl.

The wayward, fortune-seeking Thorpe family fared little better. John Thorpe was distinguished by his ludicrous, clownish get-up and seedy leer while his sister Isabella constantly smirked, simpered and smiled to the point where I felt like punching her through the TV screen. A truly ghastly performance.

Katharine Schlesinger is passable as Catherine Morland, the unassuming, naieve heroine, and Googie Withers is convincing as the superficial, fashion-mad Mrs Allen.

The location shots and general mise-en-scene have much to recommend themselves in this production. Specially impressive are the Bath scenes - most particularly the ball-scenes and street scenes, shot at night, where Catherine is able to catch glimpses of revellers preparing for their balls, parties and entertainments. There is a very real sense of excitement engendered through these scene sequences.

Costumes are fine, very much emphasising this as a turn of the century (18th to 19th) production, with most men in breeches and stockings, and cumbersome Georgian wigs still very much the vogue. Ladies' costumes in Bath are ornate and fanciful.

And the hats! Special mention must be made of the hats. Huge, towering, wafting feathers, which never failed to wilt, even during an incongruous public bathing scene, where both men and women, unrealistically, were bathing together, adorned in clinging orange robes - but with hats still sailing aloft. This was one of many bizarre moments in this production - and one of the better ones - certainly in comparison to the Northanger Abbey section of the narrative which verges on the absurd!

But then, this adaptation is riddled with absurdities; some more successful than others. For example, Catherine consistently indulges in extremely bloodthirsty 'damsel in distress' fantasies - the corollary of excessive Gothic novel reading - which are initially an original method to explain the romantic nonsense Catherine has stuffed her head with, but become frankly risible as the narrative progressed further.

Finally a few words on the screenplay from Maggie Wadey, of whom I had fairly high hopes, chiefly based on her work with Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers - and notably she has adapted Austen's Mansfield Park, due to air in 2007. In one respect, Wadey has fared very well to compress the story into a short-ish tele-film, and indeed, one quickly realises how the bare essentials of Austen's narrative are reasonably slight and uncomplicated. In view of this, it is astonishing that this novel has not been more favoured by adaptors to date. Here though, Wadey had often muddied Austen's sparkling dialogue, rendering it clunky and laboured. Plus, there were some bewildering narratological inconsistencies.

For instance, when Catherine meets Isabella Thorpe, she does not seem especially enamoured of her. But lo and behold, the next time they meet (as far as we aware ... there is no hint otherwise, that's for sure), Isabella is embracing Catherine, who is still lying in bed, in a manner which speaks of unbridled and prolonged intimacy. The narrative has speeded up to such an extent and in such a cumbersome manner we are also supposed to believe that Isabella has fallen in love with James Morland - a character we meet only very briefly. There is no building to this moment; no reason it seems for us to care.

By the end of this adaptation of Northanger Abbey I was clock-watching, quite desperate for it to end, even if, as I of course knew would happen, Catherine would become engaged to Firth's 'creepy' Henry Tilney with his air of mild sociopathy. It seemed a sorry fate for such a sweet girl, but by now I didn't care, and virtually applauded when puffy-mouth Firth finally ensnared Catherine with a big, fat kiss.

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